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Book Club Questions

Do you and your friends have a book club? Here are some questions from Goodreads.com for you to discuss after reading The Last Honest Man in Havana:

1) Who was your favourite character? Why?

2) If you were drafted to fight in a foreign war, what would you do?

3) Why do you think the characters call older people Señor and Señora (Mr. and Mrs.) instead of Compañero and Compañera (Comrade)?

4) When Señora Vásquez finds someone to rent Elena’s apartment, why doesn’t Elena ask questions about this person’s source of income?

5) Some of Elena’s decisions may seem controversial. In what scene would you have acted differently?

6) If you were Rafael, how would you have reacted to Mirlay during the last visit to her office?

7) Do you feel as if this book has changed your views on Cuba? Why?

8) How much of a person’s character would you say is shaped by the time and place in which he or she lives?

9) Do you believe that Elena was justified in her disgust of tourists?

10) How do you think cronyism and corruption has affected Cuba?

11) What does freedom mean to you?

12) Between 1980 and 2013, 1,144,000 Cubans have immigrated to the United States alone. If you lived in Cuba today do you think you would stay or try to leave?

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How to Write a Book Review

Source: How to Write a Book Review

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Staying at a Casa Particular: Mi Casa es Su Casa

I wrote this edited piece in 2004 for a travel website. I still think casas particulares are one of the best ways to see Cuba–even though the “apartheid” he mentions has come to an end.

000424-ch-kohly-la-casona-de-44While buying an all-inclusive package may be the easiest way to organize a beach holiday in Cuba, others may feel they are not able to experience the real Cuba in the tourist-only resort areas. A casa particular may be the answer.

Staying at a casa particular, or private house, is the best way for visitors to learn more about Cuba and its people. There are thousands of these Bed & Breakfasts on the island.

It is not difficult to find these private accommodations. Check out http://www.casaparticular.info, for example. Paul Lamot, a Belgian citizen who lives near Antwerp with his Cuban wife, began running the Web site in 2000 to support these small business ventures. His Web site is a portal to casa particular sites and provides a list of casas around the country, which are licensed by the Cuban government and often run around US$ 25 and up a night.

“Casa owners that operate legally are allowed to advertise their place using little fliers that are mostly given to arriving tourists by young people,” says Lamot. Or you may be approached by someone riding a motorbike, who will try to direct you to a particular casa. “That is about the extent that advertising is allowed.”

Independent travellers hungry for information about the casas in Cuba have been flocking to Lamot’s site. By the end of its second year, 8,500 had visited the site, and Lamot estimates some 40,000 people will have visited the site by the end of 2004.

There are no government statistics for how many tourists stay in casas particulares each year, but Lamot estimates thousands choose to see Cuba this way. “It is the only viable (and inexpensive) alternative lodging in Cuba. A casa will cost you half of a cheap hotel and will provide a better room and better meals.”

“Beyond the low prices though,” explains Lamot, “there is an overwhelming desire with most people to experience Cuba. The ‘tourism apartheid’ of the government has made the resorts sterile and ghetto-like.” People that stay at an all-inclusive giant hotel have not seen the real Cuba, Lamot believes.

Lamot also says that many of the tourists who visit Cuba and stay in anything less than a five-star rated resort are appalled by the service and food they experience in a lower rated accommodation.

“Receiving sub-standard services in the hotel creates an image of uneducated and uncaring people. Staying at a casa particular will show you that the Cubans are actually the opposite. The service and care you will receive in a good casa will only create and reinforce the image of the Cubans as an open and helpful people.”

The best casas Lamot has seen are in the capital city. “I found the most luxurious casas in Havana, but there are some great casas in every town. Santiago can surprise you, and Trinidad with its historical buildings has some stunning casas.”

In most cases, staying at a casa includes the room and breakfast. Some casas will charge separately for breakfast and any other meals are always to be paid for separately. Lamot says it is advisable to eat at your casa, or a paladar, a private restaurant, as the quality of the food is much better than it is in state restaurants, and the prices are lower.

If you want to rent a car or perhaps hire a car and driver for the duration of your stay, the owner of your casa can also help you with the latter. This option usually is cheaper than renting your own vehicle. Either way, staying at a casa particular will give you more freedom to explore the island and find the Cuba of your imagination.

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Real Estate in Cuba: Location, Location and Restitution!

I love the idea of having a place in Cuba. Somewhere we could retire. Maybe do a restoration on a beautiful old place that’s falling down.

How about this one?

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It’s just 850,000 CUC!

The laws surrounding real estate have changed drastically in the last few years. In The Last Honest Man in Havana, which is set between the late 80s and the early 90s, you couldn’t buy, sell or rent property legally. If you left the country, you walked away from everything. One couple in our family lost three apartments they inherited when they left. Maybe when things open up in Cuba, they can try to get compensation for the nationalization of their property.

And this is the main reason I’d never buy anything down there.

Whoever is selling you the property was probably not the original owner. I mean, the pre-revolutionary owner. And once things get turned around in Cuba, it’s likely that the descendants of that person will come back for restitution. I saw this happening first hand in the Czech Republic in the mid-nineties. Many families were in court fighting for compensation or trying to get properties back.

My husband’s step-mother sold her house to a Chinese national quite recently. He set his Cuban girlfriend up there. For now he’s okay. He won’t get squatters when he’s not around and the house was in fantastic condition when it sold so he won’t be scrambling around for hard-to-resource renovation materials.

But my step-mother-in-law didn’t move there until 1991. She got it in a permuta for two beautiful apartments in Vedado. One was a luxury penthouse apartment, complete with service elevator, that belonged to her father. The other belonged to my father-in-law.

 If things change, this Chinese businessman, may find his investment suddenly costs him quite a bit more. That will depend on the laws, the determination of the original owners or their descendants and their financial situations – because it will cost them too.

 

 

 

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[Guest Post] “Writing fiction from a different cultural perspective” by Melanie Furlong-Riesgo

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My Cuban Family

On my first trip to Cuba, in 1999, I was pregnant and meeting my in-laws for the first time. Normally, I would recommend a complete background check on potential in-laws before getting involved too deeply with anyone, but it was not possible for me. Anyway, when you’re really in love, you won’t care who they are.

You know I’m right.

Luckily, my mother-in-law, Edilia, was a lovely person. She lived in Playa, Havana, with Salva, her partner of two decades, in the tiny starter apartment she’d moved into with her first husband, Amaro. This is Edilia and Amaro on their wedding day below.

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I love the flowers at this wedding.

By the time I got to Cuba, Amaro had passed away. But the pile of photos Edilia had saved in a flimsy plastic bag gave me an incredible look at what their lives had been like. She had some great shots like this one from 1952 at El Club Militar y Naval in Nautico.

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This one of her and her friends during Carnaval.

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And this one from her own quincenera.

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But when I started asking about all the people in these photos, I learned they had all left Cuba. The only people remaining from the photo above were Edilia and her sister, Bertha, who is at her right. It was incredible. Ruly and Chuchi, her brothers, both left Cuba in 1959 after the family’s electronics business was “nationalized.”

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They hadn’t seen Chuchi for 40 years.

Edilia and Bertha also wanted to leave, but their husbands didn’t and they wouldn’t allow them to leave the country with their children.

This had been a very close-knit family that clearly loved each other a lot. Learning of their situation was upsetting. So I asked Edilia if I could take some photos home with me. We copied a beautiful photo of the four children and their parents, their parents’ wedding photos and some others. Then we mailed them off to Puerto Rico and Illinois.

The response was overwhelming. Both men called my husband, crying and thanking us for the photos. They framed them and hung them on the walls. Chuchi said he knew he would meet his parents again in heaven.

Two years later, when Edilia came to stay with us in Halifax, she was reunited with her brothers and one of her nephews! They laughed and cried together for a whole week, telling stories and reliving their happy childhoods.

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Every one of them is gone now. And I am so happy I was able to play a little part in this reunion. I believe the separation and destruction of families is one of Fidel Castro’s crimes. Unfortunately, it’s one he will never answer for.

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Two Years!!

Hello again!I am officially the most unproductive blogger I know! It has been nearly two years since I last wrote on this blog.

Since then, I took a bit of a break from freelancing and have been working at my second love, travel. I’ve been selling holidays–and taking a few good ones myself. Perhaps more about that in a different blog.

The Last Honest Man in Havana is still a work in progress, however. I am working with my writers’ group and they are keeping me on task. We sit in a circle at our monthly meetings and they shake their heads ‘no’ at me when I take a wrong turn with this story. When I’m on track, they cheer me on. “Keep going!” is our mantra.

I’m in the final stages of the second complete draft. I dream of taking the completed manuscript to a writers’ conference in Mexico, meeting a fabulous agent and selling my work. The travel bug might be clouding my vision.

In the meantime, I’ve published a short story in Celtic Life International magazine and won a prize with the same story from the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. Thank goodness for all the encouragement I get! All these years of work have just been a labour of love.

If you are also writing, I hope you will keep going too!

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